Lawmakers, safety organizations discuss distracted driving

The National Safety Council hopes for a total ban on cell phone use while driving.

Cali Owings

The list of possible distractions while driving is endless, but lawmakers are looking to reduce the amount of multitasking that occurs on Minnesota roads. Since law enforcement cannot regulate many driving distractions, such as talking to passengers in the backseat, the focus is on restricting technology-assisted distractions. The National Safety Council, AAA Minnesota/Iowa and cell phone providers presented an informational hearing on distracted driving to the joint House and Senate transportation committees Wednesday. No action will be taken on the issue this session, but Rep. Frank Hornstein, DFL-Minneapolis, said he hoped the hearing would be the first step toward comprehensive legislation in the future. Minnesota was the third state to outlaw texting while driving in 2009, but David Teater of the National Safety Council said he is looking for a state or city to lead the nation in putting a total ban on cell phones while driving. Cell phones are not the only culprit. Putting on makeup, eating, drinking, listening to music or following directions from a GPS device are all potential distractions. But a cell phone, with the ability to make calls, browse the Web and send text messages, provides more distractions than anything else, Teater said. âÄúMultitasking behind the wheel is not only dangerous; it can be deadly,âÄù Teater said. His experience with distracted drivers is personal; his son died six years ago when a driver ran through a stop light while talking on her cell phone. According to the National Safety Council, 28 percent of all crashes involve drivers distracted by cell phones. Mobile phone use interferes with a driverâÄôs ability to keep his eyes on the road, hands on the wheel and mind on driving, Teater said. Michael McDermott, a representative for Verizon Wireless, promoted using hands-free devices, but Teater said that although it takes away the visual and mechanical factors, a conversation on a cell phone is still a cognitive distraction. Regardless of the studies indicating the dangers of cell phone use while driving, the practice is very difficult to regulate. Michele Tuchner of the Minnesota State Patrol said some of the indications that a person is texting while driving are: not immediately going when the light turns green, head bobbing, swerving and driving too fast or slow. She said it would be even more difficult to tell if someone is using a hands-free wireless device. Susie Palmer of the Minnesota Office of Traffic Safety said the state will begin an enhanced enforcement effort of the texting ban in August. Officers will stop and talk to drivers to increase their awareness of the dangers of their behavior, even if they donâÄôt end up ticketing violators. Hornstein said he hoped Minnesota would continue to be a leader in traffic safety but indicated legislation would not be introduced until at least 2011 to make sure it is a thorough solution. It is not clear whether cell phone companies will be on board with a total ban on cell phone use while driving. McDermott said Verizon Wireless would not support an outright ban. However, Sen. Steve Murphy, DFL-Red Wing, urged cell phone providers to come forward in support.